Eyal Benvenisti and Amichai Cohen on ‘War as Governance’

by Kenneth Anderson

Perhaps some OJ readers caught this abstract from the SSRN public international law postings this week, but if you didn’t, I want to commend it to you:  Eyal Benvenisti and Amichai Cohen, “War as Governance: Explaining the Logic of the Laws of War from a Principal-Agent Perspective.” I have read it once, and plan to re-read it; I’ve long followed both authors’ work with considerable respect (and have been pleased to have Amichai as a friend ever since he visited at my law school years ago).  I don’t know yet whether I agree fundamentally or not; I want to consider this carefully.  But I thought it was one of the most interesting methodological approaches to the laws of war that I’ve read in quite a long time and believe it should get substantial attention (though I admit I teach law and economics, as well as the law of agent and principal in corporations classes, so I might have some prior methodological biases here).  SSRN abstract:

What is the purpose of the international law on armed conflict, and why would opponents bent on destroying each other’s capabilities commit to and obey rules designed to limit their choice of targets, weapons and tactics? Traditionally, answers to this question have been offered on the one hand by moralists who regard the law as being inspired by morality, and on the other by realists who explain this branch of law on the basis of reciprocity. Neither side’s answers withstand close scrutiny. In this Article we develop an alternative explanation which is based on the principal-agent model of domestic governance. We pry open the black box of “the state,” and examine the complex interaction between the civilian and military apparatuses seething beneath the veil of sovereignty. Our point of departure is that military conflicts raise significant intra-state conflicts of interest that result from the delegation of authority to engage in combat: between civil society and elected officials, between elected officials and military commanders, and within the military chain of command. We submit that the most effective way to reduce domestic agency costs prevalent in war is by relying on external resources to monitor and discipline the agents. Even though it may be costly, and reciprocity is not assured, principals who worry that agency slack may harm them or their nations’ interests are likely to prefer that warfare be regulated by international norms. The Article expounds the theory and uses it to explain the evolution of the law and its specific doctrines, and outlines the normative implications of this new understanding of the purpose of the law. Ultimately, our analysis suggests that, as a practical matter, international law enhances the ability of states to amass huge armies, because it lowers the costs of controlling them. Therefore, although at times compliance with the law may prove costly in the short run, in the long run it strengthens the state against its enemies.

One reason I don’t want to offer a view yet is that I am still completing the fine new book applying standard rational choice theory to international law, Eric Posner and Alan Sykes, Economic Foundations of International Law (Harvard UP 2012); its account has bearing on Benvenisti and Cohen’s quite interesting take.  Posner and Sykes is a very straightforward, descriptive account of how rational choice applied to public international law would look, by comparison to other methodological approaches.  Benvenisti and Cohen are not engaged in rational choice theory as such, however; at first pass, it seems to me that the work done in their account is much more dependent upon the political and social theory attached to looking inside the state to see its intra-state arguments over war and its conduct.  But now I’m tempting myself to say more than I’m prepared to say at this point.  Here, by the way, is Jack Goldsmith’s Lawfare comment on Posner and Sykes:

Eric Posner and Alan Sykes have a new book entitled Economic Foundations of International LawThe book does what its title suggests: gives a comprehensive rational choice account of public international law.  It distinguishes itself from other books in this genre in (among other things) its scope.  For it covers all of the major elements of public international law, from general issues (such as treaties, custom, sovereignty, and state responsibility) to various fields (jus in bello and jus ad bellum, human rights, environmental law, law of the sea, international trade and investment, and more). Economic Foundations does not engage theoretical debate about the virtues and vices of rational choice accounts of international law as opposed to other accounts.  It simply sets out basic rational choice principles and applies them to the various fields and topics.  The book is clear, insightful, and accessible, and I highly recommend it.


One Response

  1. Problem: “the state” has never been the only formal actor in international law, much less within the law of war paradigm. See my Va. J. Int’l L. article on non-state or private actors (noted in prior posts here).  There have been armed conflicts involving other actors such as a nation, tribe, people, belligerent, and insurgent.  The U.S., for example, has been at “war” with Indian nations and tribes, among others, and with belligerents (CSA 1861-65) and insurgents, althoiugh, of course, the U.S. cannot be at war with al Qaeda as such (see prior posts here). Speculation about states and informal actors within their matrix may be interesting, but the laws of war reach far more broadly. 

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